Oct 28 2007

Issues more than candidates

Published by at 12:58 pm under Idaho,Oregon,Washington

Not, on the whole, a massively significant election night coming up a week from Tuesday, but it will have its moments. Recapping briefly, here, what we’re paying attention to in the Northwest numbers.

Most significantly, ballot issues – there are no candidate races to match the significance of the major ballot issues.

Oregon has two of importance (and many voters, your scribe among them, will makes choices on nothing but these). Both can be seen from a big-picture view as intermediate steps, because neither Measure 49 on land use nor Measure 50 on cigarette taxes/child health are likely to be for-all-time end-alls on their respective issues.

But each could mark an important turning point, especially over the next three or four years. If Measure 49 passes (we suspect it will) then the center of gravity on land use in the state goes back to somewhere between where it has been under Measure 37 (under which a mass of development has been applied) and where it was before that (much more restrictive); it could evoke a period of negotiation and compromise. Measure 50, together with the upcoming restrictions on smoking places, would change the state’s cigarette culture significantly (making it much less friendly to smoking), and could send substantial money to child health care, at least for some years. If the measure fails (and we’re unclear about its prospects, uneasily leaning toward passage) a brake would be slammed on both developments.

The most sweeping measure in Washington probably is Initiative 960, a Tim Eyman special, which generally would require two-thirds approval in the legislature for increases in taxes or fees (even minor administrative or licensing fees) or, in many cases, a vote on a statewide ballot issue on each one. It sounds from here like a recipe for chaos, but it would surely be impactful. The campaign on 960 has been lower-key than you might expect given the stakes, and with a relatively low voter turnout, there’s a good chance it will pass.

The legislature has put on the ballot other substantial finance constitutional measures (Senate Joint Resolution 8206 on a budget stabilization account, Senate Joint Resolution 8212 on prison inmate labor, House Joint Resolution 4204 on eliminating supermajorities on school property tax excess levies, House Joint Resolution 4215 on investment of higher education funds), which mostly should be uncontroversial (the supermajority measure maybe excepted) . . . although their outcome will be interesting to watch if 960 passes, especially if it passes by a strong margin.

Of all these measures, we’re watching closest the prison inmate measure, which “would authorize state-operated inmate labor programs and programs in which inmate labor is used by private entities through state contracts, and prohibit privately operated programs from unfairly competing with Washington businesses.” The situation is a little tricky, changing the constitution substantially but only in certain ways – albeit important – different from historic practice. We’ll return to this, win or lose (and we suspect it will pass).

And then there’s the insurance treble-damages measure (Referendum 67), which we addressed a couple of weeks back (and which seems likely to pass). And in the central Puget Sound, there’s the very significant Measure 1, involving billions of taxes and construction for highways and public transit; its outcome seems unclear.

These measures and others seem to overwhelm the relatively few candidate contests around the Northwest, which are almost all at the local government level. Washington state has a couple of contests for state Senate, for partial terms, but a loss by either Democratic Senator Brian Hatfield of Raymond or Republican nominee Curtis King (who defeated an incumbent in a Republican primary) of Yakima would be close to unimaginable.

On the local level, though, we will be looking at these (in order of interest, from top to bottom):

bullet Spokane mayor. The region’s whirligig this season: The battle between appointed and incumbent Mayor Dennis Hession and council member Mary Verner has been a real ride, a serious clash of both personality types and world outlook, even if the issues – some of the really substantive – raised do only a muddy job of drawing the distinctions. (There’s a very useful backgrounder online about the issues, from the Spokesman-Review.) The campaigning has been fierce, and when you have a challenger accusing an incumbent of lying about her and running an over-negative TV campaign against her (both of those propositions are debatable), you know you have a hot race. After the primary in August, we concluded that Hession had the uphill road to run, since his vote total in that four-way fell far short of 50%, a serious danger sign for an incumbent. We’re still inclined to think he’s behind; but so strong and visible has been this campaign that voter reactions are tougher than usual to predict. Whatever the result, this one will cry out for precinct analysis.

bullet King County Council 6. The race between two candidates neither of whom really ought to win: Republican incumbent Jane Hague, a once-formidable vote-getter now trapped in the Year of Horrors (DUI, swearing at a cop, false resume, etc.) enough to crush her political prospects. A strong Democrat probably would take her out, but the opposition turns out to be Richard Pope, a perennial candidate who’s lost more races (generally overwhelmingly) in King County than you have fingers, and who has no real support from other Democrats (who remember that he’s also run over the years as a Republican). If “none of the above” were on the ballot, there’s your winner, but it isn’t, so . . .

bullet Port of Seattle 2. Call us unconvinced that this battle between incumbent Bob Edwards and challenger Gael Tarleton is as clear-cut an incumbent/insider vs. reformer/outsider contest as it gets billed around Seattle. Consider this lead from a recent Seattle Times piece on the race: “Bob Edwards and Gael Tarleton agree on most issues, but you wouldn’t know it listening to them bash each other in their race for Seattle Port Commission.” But what Seattle voters will be voting on, an endorsement of current practices or a desire to upend them and rock the boat, seems clear enough, and these two candidates seem to have emerged perfectly as stand-ins for those ideas.

bullet Seattle City Council 3 and 7. There’s a temptation to shrug these off as quirk-driven races. Or maybe not. Council member David Della (seat 7), who got there by ousting former council member Heidi Wills, has generated reviews as being ineffective and low-energy on the council, which doesn’t seem to be brief against his challenger, Tim Burgess. The argument against Burgess is that he’s done a range of professional work for social-right groups, on abortion and other issues, the sort of thing that would sell just fine in Grants Pass or Idaho Falls but not so much in Seattle. (Della has been pounding on Burgess as a Trojan horse for the far right.) As to what Burgess’ own views are: That has generated ferocious debate all over the place, not least in liberal arenas (such as at The Slog, where the subject of Della-Burgess has gotten rehashed most every day.) And then there’s the open seat (seat 3) where most of the endorsements and energy seemed directed toward Venus Velazquez (running against attorney Bruce Harrell); but then came the evening of October 17, just about the time ballots were put in the mail for marking, when she was stopped for speeding and then charged with driving under the influence. She has pleaded not guilty, but uproar has predictably ensued. Both races seem wide open.

bullet Eagle (Idaho) mayor. If you move beyond the Northwest’s larger metro cities, you might have to settle on Eagle – immediate northwest of Boise – as the roiling place to look for electoral significance this year. Eagle is growing, hard and fast, and how you feel about that and how well it’s being handled is Topic A (as it should be) in this year’s elections, when Mayor Nancy Merrill is opting out. There are four candidates, and the stances they take (too complex for summary here) say a lot about local attitudes. The edge may go to former council member Phil Bandy, who also may be the closest in outlook to Merrill (and has the Idaho Statesman‘s endorsement); but the situation here is turbulent and not especially predictable.

bullet Boise mayor. You never know; Boise voters could shock us all and elect the challenger, Council member Jim Tibbs, as mayor. But we see no basis for thinking they’ll likely do other than re-elect Mayor David Bieter. Not that everyone’s thrilled with Bieter, or that you couldn’t make a case against him. But Tibbs’ campaign hasn’t, at least not successfully – its few efforts in that direction have tended to backfire; and he’s made a surprisingly soft case for himself, considering his deep civic background. Very interesting here, if Bieter loses, but that seems improbable.

In all, plenty to look out for, a week from Tuesday.

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